Making a brand relevant, the Philip Kotler way

Tuesday, 7 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Brand relevance can simply be defined as making what customers want, but let’s also do it in a way that it protects the planet. This was my take of Philip Kotler when he addressed a gathering on Saturday at Waters Edge.


I regret that I was not in Sri Lanka to listen to the great maestro on his innovative product ‘Marketing 3.0’ on Monday, but the thought that crossed my mind was that sometimes we spend way too much time on developing sexy advertising and public relations programmes that end up with our brand featured on all the cover pages of magazines and newspapers, but lower scores on repeat purchase, which results in even the top brands struggling to keep alive in a company.

The best case in point is the insurance industry, where cutting edge consumer insight has led to developing brands which have become relevant in the eyes of a consumer and gone on to become the flagship brands in a company’s portfolio.

Take VIP Motor Insurance. The marketers have identified that the motorist wants a convenient way of activating an insurance policy where the damaged vehicle can be on the road in the shortest time. Ceylinco came on the rail with this proposition and now it is the market leader in this category by just being relevant to a consumer.

Kotler now advocates that one must look one step ahead and ensure that the planner is also protected and thereby the business is sustainable in the long-term, which is interesting.

Willing to experiment

Some say that the romance of marketing is such that the marketer needs to closely watch what consumers do and then make sure that marriage happens. However, in this daring romance, some brands have stayed unadventurous and remained stuck to their knitting or have been unable to distinguish trends from fads; trends to respond to have headed towards a black tunnel where even the driver loses the path.

There are many such examples in the tourism industry of today, which has resulted in hostile takeovers by companies such as LOLC, which I guess are lessons we need to be sensitive towards. On the other hand, brands that are willing to experiment, maybe even fail, wanted to be there before a trend became an actuality and today they are success stories in the world.

Samsung is a classic in the world of today where product development specialists with deep insights into what consumers want, have developed products which are relevant to consumers with clever designs and multifunctional gadgets, like camcorders that download songs and refrigerators that also surf the internet. It has swept upwards for cell phone designs that look like dashboards, tuxedos or pebbles in a stream.

Whist the company has become an outstanding company for refining other people’s inventions, a strategy that worked fine while the company was climbing to the top. A top official of the company said: “Samsung has mastered one crucial factor: Making brands relevant to a consumer. It is the issue of focus. I believe that identifying the relevance of a brand is one successful strategy that has made great business. Samsung had mastered it.”

In Sri Lanka the new kid on the block, Cinnamon Lakeside, which carried away the title of ‘best Five Star Hotel in the City’ at the Tourism Awards 2011, is another example of an organisation that was willing to experiment and innovate and today it’s a case study in the Sri Lankan market for marketing excellence.

I guess if the property can now drive a ‘sustainable model’ so that it is environmentally conscious such as green tourism, then the model that Kotler advocates becomes a practice and hence the visit to Sri Lanka is worth the while, in my view.

Continuous innovation

We should accept that being a trendsetter is not sufficient. The company must get it right with transformational innovation which is relevant to the customer. Dialog is an example from Sri Lanka where continuously innovating products like ‘KIT’ and 3G and now 4G has made the company the market leader in the country.

I remember the Holy Grail once mentioned by one of my bosses at Reckitt Benckizer: “Brands are the lifeblood of a company; keep it relevant over time.” This is exactly what the challenge is. How does one keep a brand relevant when the design has changed between the time one purchases a brand from the store and brings it home? This makes the job of marketer more dynamic and exciting.


It’s not easy to be a trendsetter. Sometimes we can practice brand extensions too. The Dove experience captures the essence of this practice. In 1994, Dove was doing $ 200 million worth of business. Thereafter it extended into areas like shampoos and deodorants. Today it is a $ 3 billion brand in one of the most difficult categories in the world. The soap bar alone has grown from $ 200 million to $ 260 million. None of this would have happened if not for enhancing the brand while keeping it relevant to consumers.

A key question in mind is, what extensions will build and provide it with visibility and energy? Google is another example that comes to my mind. It was a trend driver with its new online advertising model. It doesn’t present a standing target for Microsoft and Yahoo and like Virgin, but it enjoys great emotional connect.

Cloguard toothpaste is another great trendsetting brand in Sri Lanka that kept itself relevant by being the driver of the trend – herbal oral care with the proposition with clove oil. It has captured over a 30 per cent share in the Sri Lankan market.

Country of origin

In today’s world, consumers have been termed brand sluts. A powerful term, but the logic is very strong. Customers now have many alternatives to meet a given requirement. Claims such as country of origin has very little impact on a brand getting picked up – hence the word slut.

If we take the automobile market in the world of yesterday, German automobiles were preferred for their superior German technology. Then the world turned to Japanese vehicles, which were world beaters for convenience and economy. But today, the world is moving to Korean automobiles, not because of country of origin but on the relevance of a brand to consumer.

In fact it is how the brand wraps around a consumer’s life that makes it the top of the mind brand. Hence the new ethos should be: ‘How do I keep a brand relevant in this fast changing consumer world?’

(The author is the Head of National Portfolio Development for the United Nations – UNOPS – in Sri Lanka and Maldives, whilst also serving the Boards of Sri Lanka Export Development and many other leading State and private sector institutions in Sri Lanka. He is currently on an Executive Leadership Programme at Harvard University, USA.)